Bringing fossils to life

One of the biggest challenges for science producers is making the complex science behind their programs accessible to a larger audience. Atlantic Productions' head of development, James Taylor, and CEO and executive producer Anthony Geffen spoke with realscreen about how they brought the Ida Fossil to mass audiences through their new doc The Link.
June 1, 2009

For science producers, some of the obstacles they face when making a science doc include making it comprehensible to a general audience, using scientists in an interesting way (which is sometimes the hardest part) and connecting the story to the audience. Atlantic Productions, a UK-based prodco that focuses on history and science docs, is the team behind The Link, a new doc about the discovery of the Ida Fossil. When it came to negotiating those obstacles with the new project, Atlantic head of development James Taylor and CEO/exec producer Anthony Geffen say they had a lot of factors working in their favor.

First off the story they were working on – the discovery of the Ida Fossil, the oldest and most completely preserved primate fossil ever found – had been kept a secret from the public until May 19, just before the documentary was due to go out in the US (on History), the UK (on the BBC), Germany (ZDF) and Norway (NRK) last week. So they had the excitement around a new discovery, and one that is hypothesized to be the missing link, no less.

Next they had interesting scientists on board to help tell the story. According to Taylor, lead scientist Jorn Hurum, from the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, is a charismatic scientist who speaks very eloquently and passionately about Ida and her significance. ‘He makes our job much easier because just hearing him talk about Ida and the science he’s been doing immediately engages an audience, and you’re not always that fortunate with scientists,’ says Taylor.

Finally there’s the look of the fossil itself. Since it is perfectly preserved and intact, Atlantic shot it using CG scans so they could go into minute detail with scientists and see what they were seeing. They also partnered with Zoo, a computer graphics company which turned Ida from a flattened fossil into a 3D creature. ‘That is how science can be brought alive to a broad audience,’ says Geffen. ‘You’ve got to use all the different levels of storytelling to weave it together.’

Geffen, who was a producer/director for the BBC for 10 years prior to starting Atlantic, says that when he left the Beeb he wanted to get into more projects that used various platforms. ‘Fifteen years ago that was hard because there weren’t really the revenue streams [available],’ says Geffen. Over the years Atlantic has worked to integrate online components with their documentaries. Some of the other levels that Atlantic used to draw audiences to The Link include creating a book and an online component. The book, by award-winning science writer Colin Tudge, has already made the New York Times’ Best Sellers list and the website acts as the singular home for information and videos about the 47 million-year-old fossil and the scientist’s report.

‘You know what the most exciting thing was?’ asks Geffen. ‘When [the site] went to the front of Google what it did was it brought millions and millions of kids from all over [the world]. What did that do? It opened their eyes to the world of science and those are kids that now might be involved in some way, might become scientists, and it put science back at the forefront. That’s very exciting.’

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